Tag Archives: Zoltán Balog

CEU: New York State vs. Hungarian legal gobbledygook

It was less than a week ago that I wrote a post in which I included a couple of paragraphs about the state of the “negotiations” between the Hungarian government and the administration of the United States. On May 17 the European Parliament “urged the Hungarian Government to immediately suspend all deadlines in the act amending the National Higher Education Act, to start immediate dialogue with the relevant US authorities in order to guarantee the future operations of the Central European University issuing US-accredited degrees, and to make a public commitment that the university can remain in Budapest as a free institution.”

Today, a week later, the National Higher Education Act is still in force and the Hungarian government has shown no intention of altering the recently adopted law that makes the continued existence of Central European University (CEU) in Budapest impossible. Neither has the Hungarian government gotten in touch with the “relevant US authorities.” As for direct negotiations with the administration of the university, after about a month the government sent a bunch of middle-level bureaucrats who, as it turned out, had no decision-making authority.

It matters not that the United States government made it abundantly clear that the U.S. federal government has no authority to negotiate with a foreign power about educational matters relating to schools and universities. The Hungarian ministry of foreign affairs simply ignored the message and kept insisting that the State Department is ill informed. The Secretary of Education is authorized to conduct negotiations on the fate of Central European University with the Hungarian government. Tamás Menczer, a former sports reporter and now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, confidently announced that, in the past, the two countries had signed three agreements dealing with education. Buried in the government archives was a 1977 agreement on cultural, educational, scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries. The second was signed in 1998. It dealt with the legal status of the American International School Budapest, which functions under the aegis of the Office of Overseas Schools of the U.S. State Department. The third was from 2007, when the two countries signed an agreement about a committee that would oversee student exchange programs between the two countries. Clearly, these cases have nothing to do with the issue on hand, but that fact didn’t seem to bother the foreign ministry, whose spokesman announced that the ball is still in the United States’ court. The Hungarian government is just waiting for a letter from the secretary of education inviting them for a discussion about Central European University. Kristóf Altusz, an undersecretary in the ministry, claimed that about four weeks ago he “negotiated” with the U.S. government, but his approach was described by the U.S. authorities as “seeking information.” I believe this meant that Altusz was told he was knocking on the wrong door.

The Hungarian government is obviously stalling. If nothing is done, they will wait until CEU’s next academic year is in jeopardy. Students normally apply to universities in the winter, and sometime in the spring the applicants get the much awaited letter about their future. Under the present circumstances, the Hungarian government is playing with the fate of the best university in Hungary. But this is exactly the goal. Not only the ministry of foreign affairs but also the ministry of human resources, which is in charge of education, are waiting for the letter they know full well will not come. Zoltán Balog told Index that “I’m expecting a letter from the madam secretary who is competent to negotiate, which I will probably receive. It will be after [the arrival of the letter] that I will formulate my position concerning the case.”

A day after this encounter, on May 23, the U.S. State Department published a press statement titled “Government of Hungary’s Legislation Impacting Central European University.” The statement read:

The United States again urges the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of its amended higher education law, which places discriminatory, onerous requirements on U.S.-accredited institutions in Hungary and threatens academic freedom and independence.

The Government of Hungary should engage directly with affected institutions to find a resolution that allows them to continue to function freely and provide greater educational opportunity for the citizens of Hungary and the region.

The U.S. Government has no authority or intention to enter into negotiations on the operation of Central European University or other universities in Hungary.

The Hungarian Foreign Minister’s reaction to this statement was what one would expect from the Orbán government. “It is regrettable,” said Tamás Menczer, that “no assistance comes from the American federal government…. A press release is a far cry from an official diplomatic answer outlining a negotiating agenda.” The Hungarian government is obviously quite prepared to wait for an official diplomatic letter, which will never arrive. So there is an impasse, exactly what the Hungarian government was hoping for. This way they can show the world that they are flexible and ready to negotiate and that the deadlock is entirely the fault of the United States.

The deadlock might have been broken this afternoon when Governor Andrew M. Cuomo of the State of New York announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian government. Let me quote the whole statement:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced his readiness to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship that enables the Central European University to operate in Budapest.

The Government of Hungary has recently adopted legislation that would force the closure of CEU. This legislation directly contradicts the 2004 Joint Declaration with the State of New York, which supported CEU’s goal of achieving Hungarian accreditation while maintaining its status as an accredited American institution.

The Government of Hungary has stated publicly that it can only discuss the future of CEU in Hungary with relevant US authorities, which in this case is the State of New York. The Governor welcomes the opportunity to resolve this matter and to initiate discussions with the Hungarian government without delay.

The Central European University in Budapest is a symbol of American-Hungarian cooperation and a world-class graduate university that is chartered by the State of New York. For more than 25 years, this institution has provided tremendous value to Hungary and to its diverse student body representing more than 100 countries.

An agreement to keep CEU in Budapest as a free institution is in everyone’s best interests, and I stand ready to enter into discussions with the Hungarian Government to continue the New York State-Government of Hungary relationship and ensure that the institution remains a treasured resource for students around the world.

This offer at least broke the silence, but I’m not at all sure whether it will break the impasse. At a press conference Michael Ignatieff, rector of Central European University, welcomed Governor Cuomo’s statement and expressed his hope that the Hungarian government will react positively to the New York governor’s willingness to negotiate. Ignatieff reminded his audience that Cuomo’s statement is timely because today is the day when the Hungarian government must answer the European Commission’s official letter on the possible infringement procedure.

Népszava got in touch with both the ministry of foreign affairs and the ministry of human resources about their reaction to Cuomo’s letter, but the paper has received no answer as yet. On the other hand, the government paper Magyar Idők came out the following intriguing couple of sentences: “If the headquarters of a university is in a federal state where the central government is not authorized to enter into binding international agreements, then the issuing of the document must be based on a prior agreement with the central government. These preliminary agreements with the federal government must be concluded within six months prior to the date of entry into the force of law.” It is such a complicated text that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of these sentences. So, to be safe, here is the original Hungarian text: “… ha az egyetem székhelye egy föderatív államban van, és ott a nemzetközi szerződés kötelező hatályának elismerésére nem a központi kormányzat jogosult, akkor a központi kormánnyal létrejött előzetes megállapodáson kell alapulnia az oklevél kiadásához szükséges nemzetközi szerződésnek. Ezeket az előzetes megállapodásokat a föderatív állam kormányával a törvény hatályba lépését – a kihirdetését követő napot – követő fél éven belül meg kell kötni.”

If my interpretation is correct, the Hungarian government will invoke some arcane (or newly minted) law, imposing a most likely unattainable legal requirement which will extend the agony of Central European University for at least six more months.

May 24, 2017

An American LGBT hate group will enjoy the hospitality of the Orbán government

This is not the first time that I’m writing about the World Congress of Families. Through its annual gatherings, each year in a different country, WCF, as it is known in the United States, promotes Christian right-wing family values internationally. WCF was designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center an anti-LGBT hate group in February 2014 based on its involvement in the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law.

My earlier piece focused on its congress three years ago. The congress was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the fall of 2014, but then came the annexation of Crimea and several U.S. organizations pulled out of the project. Nonetheless, the congress proceeded as planned. Several leaders of right-wing European parties attended and were among the speakers, people like Aymeric Chauprade (National Front) and Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ). Hungary was represented by Gergely Prőhle, who was one of the speakers at the gathering. The journalist for Cink.hu who wrote an article about this far-right gathering was told by the ministry that the Hungarian government doesn’t care who took part in the conference; Prőhle was there to represent the government’s family policy. I should add that the congress issued a manifesto lambasting liberal Europe and calling for a ban on “homosexual propaganda.”

WCF is again in the news, this time for its impending gathering in Budapest between May 25 and May 28. Átlátszó published a lengthy article about the Orbán government’s sponsorship of this year’s conference. I was already stunned in 2014 because I thought that the Hungarian government’s official representation at such a conference was inappropriate. Now, in 2017, the Orbán government is actually organizing and financially supporting the affair. According to the official site, the chief organizer of the event is Katalin Novák, undersecretary for family, youth, and international affairs.

The event’s site explains that “the values of accepting life, undertaking to give birth to and raise children, and families based on the marriage of a man and a woman have been compromised in the past decades but need to be restored in order to implement a sustainable future.” WCF’s goal is the spread of the idea of the “natural family” as opposed to households where children are cared for by single parents or grandparents or are brought up in same-sex marriages. The group is well known for its anti-LGBT propaganda. Its influence is especially strong in Africa, where several countries’ anti-LGBT legislation resulted from WCF’s lobbying efforts. Most notably, it helped inspire harsh anti-LGBT laws in Nigeria and Uganda.

Just last year the director of the National Organization for Marriage, Brian Brown, was elected president of WCF, which was seen as “a logical trajectory for Brown, one of the best-known anti-LGBT activists in the United States.” According to the announcement of his appointment by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Brown over the past few years has gradually refocused his opposition to marriage equality on international work, especially after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality. Brown’s ideas find fertile soil in Hungarian government circles. SPLC gave a good summary of Brown’s ideas and checkered career at the time of his appointment as president of WCF.

Brian Brown, president of WCF / Source: AP Images

WCF’s platform is bad enough. But perhaps even more worrisome is its close cooperation with Russian nationalists, serving Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In fact, the World Congress of Families has its roots in Moscow. In 1995 the leader of an Illinois-based group, the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society, was invited to Russia by two professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University. The three men agreed that unfavorable demographic trends were the result of feminism and homosexuality. So, they came up with the idea of “pro-family” conferences in Europe and Russia and agreed to share their ideas with American evangelical thinkers.

WCF has had its greatest influence in Russia. It has deep ties to the Russian Orthodox Church and the Putin regime. Apparently, WCF has nothing but praise for Vladimir Putin and his policies. One its leaders wrote that Putin “is the one defending laws and morality consistent with the freedom in the U.S. Constitution.” Another leader called Putin “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests … than … that mythical force known as world opinion.”

Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization in the United States, put together a comprehensive history of WCF, in which a chapter is devoted to Eastern Europe. In the region it was Poland that was most eager to welcome WCF. The Polish government hosted WCF’s annual gathering in 2007, during the brief tenure of Jarosław Kaczyński as prime minister of Poland. The group made its first excursion into Serbia in 2013, where WCF leaders attended an anti-LGBT rally which led to the cancellation of the Belgrade Pride Parade. A year later they organized a regional conference in Kiev. In 2014 a WCF partner, Alliance Defending Freedom, submitted an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court of Slovakia supporting the proposed referendum on a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union between one man and one woman. They are also active in Albania, Latvia, Romania, and the Czech Republic. In Hungary there was no need to lobby for a restriction of the meaning of marriage because the Orbán government incorporated it into the new constitution.

Looking through the very thorough history of WCF by the Human Rights Campaign, I found only two countries outside of Russia–namely, Poland and Hungary–where the organization has received official support. Suggestions by the independent media in Hungary that WCF is actually a homophobic hate organization were swept aside by Zoltán Balog, who is obviously a great supporter of the organization. According to Balog, “all sorts of nonsense has been published about ‘who’s who’ among the participants.” The Hungarian government certainly would not participate in any event that spreads hatred of LGBT people. He proudly announced that at the end of May Budapest will be the capital of families.

Hungary has its own conference on the family, the Budapest Demographic Forum—Families in Focus, which held its first gathering in June 2015. This year the Budapest Demographic Forum will hold its second conference in conjunction with WCF’s annual gathering. The Forum’s keynote speaker will be Viktor Orbán himself. A former Spanish minister of interior and the Croatian and Polish ministers responsible for family affairs will attend. Thus, an allegedly scientific gathering on demographics is subsumed into a four-day WCF extravaganza. Further and further down a very slippery slope.

May 11, 2017

The Hungarian government and transparency: The case of the mentally disabled

On April 18, 2017, Pablo Gorondi, Budapest correspondent for the Associated Press, reported that the Mental Disability Advocacy Center (MDAC), after visiting Topház Otthon (Top House Home) in Göd, 30 km from Budapest, a state-run institution for people with mental and physical disabilities, called for the closure of the institution. They uncovered signs of ill-treatment and malnutrition in the run-down facilities of the institution that houses 220 children and adults. Steven Allen, the group’s campaign director, said that “the conditions, abusive practice and evidence of violence … are the result of systematic failings in law, policy and regulation and a lack of effective and independent monitoring.” The report also pointed out that, according to the Central Statistical Office, there are some 25,000 people in Hungary with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues who have been placed in state institutions. The Hungarian government estimates that it would take 19 years to move these people to smaller homes. In addition to Gorondi, Nick Thorpe of BBC also filed a report about the “shocking conditions” found in the “home,” although he attached the opinion of an official of the Office of the Commissioner for Equal Rights who claims that “Topház is an extreme case.”

Of course, we have no idea whether this is really true since gaining access to these facilities is extremely difficult. Instead of going into the details of the terrible conditions found in all the wards MDAC visited, I will concentrate on the difficulties MDAC encountered in trying to gain access to Topház. Given the reluctance of the officials in charge of these facilities, they must be well aware of the conditions inside the walls of these institutions. Otherwise they wouldn’t prevent monitoring teams from entering the premises. Moreover, it is unlikely that Topház is an extreme case because investigative journalists over the years have called attention to similar problems at other facilities.

From the descriptions I read, the problems are systemic. One problem is that these institutions are regarded as “warehouses away from the public gaze,” as MDAC’s report aptly described their function. The mentally disabled are put there to be out of sight until they die. And they die with great frequency. When the associates of MDAC arrived, there was a black flag flying alongside the Hungarian national colors. What happens to those who die without a family to pay for a funeral I have no idea, but I was struck by the story a local told the reporter of Magyar Nemzet who visited the town after the release of MDAC’s report–that one of the employees of the institution became so attached to a patient that she herself took care of the funeral arrangements.

The facility, an old mansion, is ill-suited to its present function, and one doubts that any renovation has taken place since 1978 either inside or outside. Apparently, the size of the staff is totally inadequate, which results in confining people to their beds with all the adverse effects of such confinement. Psychiatric counseling is not available on site. The patients’ dental hygiene is deplorable. One could go on and on. All in all, the Hungarian state simply doesn’t spend enough money to maintain decent facilities for the mentally disabled.

The poverty of these institutions raises a vexing question. Topház and other similar institutions have received financing from European structural and investment funds administered by the Hungarian government. MDAC recommended that the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) open an audit and investigation into a breach of fundamental rights in the use of European funding. Considering the amount of corruption in Hungary, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of the money that was supposed to be used to improve the facilities and the lives of their residents ended up in the pockets of those handling the funds.

Back in 2014 Index received permission to visit Topház where they found close to idyllic conditions. The patients were taken for excursions in the nearby forests, and physical therapists were working with some of them. The dining room was spotless and the children well dressed. Today they realize that the “show” was most likely organized for their benefit. With the exception of a few prearranged visits, Topház as well as all other facilities are closed to outsiders. For example, MDCA began their quest to receive permission to visit the premises on June 26, 2016. At that point, the director of Topház “expressed openness to collaborate” but two days later withdrew the invitation. It seems that the Directorate-General for Social Care and Child Protection (Szociális és Gyermekvédelmi Főigazgatóság/SZGYF) forbade him to allow MDAC’s visit.

After the initial denial MDAC wrote to the director of SZGYF seven times between July 1 and September 9, 2016. Then, on October 20, MDAC wrote to Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and social inclusion in the ministry of human resources, asking for a personal meeting. They received no answer. So, on November 3, MDAC wrote to Zoltán Balog, head of the ministry, with copies to the Hungarian ombudsman and the Fidesz MP who chairs the parliamentary committee on persons with disabilities. This letter was also sent to a number of MPs in the hope that one of them would be willing to accompany the staff of MDAC to Topház since MPs have free access to such facilities. In theory, at least.

Bernadett Szél (LMP) agreed to go along, but when the group arrived in Göd, the deputy director of SZGYF, accompanied by the new director and the head nurse of the facility, were at the gate. They refused to let the monitoring team in. After Szél made a telephone call to the deputy undersecretary for social policy, the MP was allowed in for a short time while the monitoring team waited for her outside the gate.

In February 2017 permission was at last granted. After several preliminary visits, the MDAC team spent a whole day, April 18, 2017, inside the facility with “minimal supervision.”

Not even the presence of MP Bernadett Szél was enough to let MDAC enter the facility

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the horror story. Although the ministry of human resources, after reading MDAC’s report, suspended the director of the facility and promised that the facility would be closed as soon as possible, Zoltán Balog didn’t think the case needed his special attention. MDAC’s request to meet with him was denied. He sent Károly Czibere, undersecretary for social affairs and inclusion, to meet them–of all places–in front of the parliament building. He declined MDAC’s request to live stream the meeting, but he did promise access to the other facilities. However, “Mr. Czibere stressed that there would be ‘conditions’ to such access.”

The official state propaganda machine, Magyar Idők, chimed in on the incident. The first article, published yesterday, did say that the ministry of human resources had admitted “extremely bad conditions” in the facility, but the author felt compelled to point out that MDAC had been founded in 2002 by–drum roll–George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. The paper also reported that several relatives of the patients had “rejected the accusations” in social media, and the paper managed to find a mother who spends three days a week at the facility. She testified that the employees of the facility have the best interests of the children in mind and there is not the slightest sign of neglect. So, reads the headline, “Is this a new smear campaign against our homeland?”

Magyar Idők’s second article, published today, was even more accusatory. This time the journalist said that MDAC’s visit was illegal and complained that the monitoring group should have gotten in touch with the ombudsman instead of snooping around the facility and “releasing information and pictures to The New York Times.” (In fact, the NYT simply republished the AP report I referenced at the beginning of this post.) In order to minimize the gravity of the situation, the author spent about half the article on a 1998 report of the ombudsman which pointed out that even at that time “the number of staff members is inadequate; the children don’t receive toys; there are too many beds with high railings; and the patients are overmedicated.” Finally, he repeated the claim that since one of the supporters of MDAC is Soros’s Open Society Foundation, “it is possible that—even if the charges are well founded—the goal is the disparagement of Hungary.”

This case is living testament to the necessity of having NGOs like MDAC, without which we would have known absolutely nothing about the dreadful conditions in Topház. As it is, the Hungarian government did its best to prevent us from ever learning about the true state of affairs in one of the state-run facilities for the mentally disabled.

May 6, 2017

A short pause in the battle between the Orbán government and CEU

It is possible that as a result of the four-day Easter holiday we will have a brief respite from the latest Hungarian drama. Today I will expand on previous posts regarding the Central European University controversy and the recall of Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi.

Let’s return first to the presidential signature on the controversial bill aimed at closing CEU. Few people had illusions about the integrity of János Áder, who after all started his political career as one of the founders of Fidesz and who subsequently occupied important positions in the party. He could, however, have salvaged the little reputation he had left by sending the bill back to parliament, which in turn could have returned it to him unchanged. Instead, the word from the president’s office was that Áder’s legal staff saw nothing in the law that would be incompatible with international law or that could be considered unconstitutional. Perhaps his legal staff had blinders on. Scores of constitutional lawyers, conservative as well as liberal, shared their opinions with Áder about the unconstitutionality of the law. László Sólyom, the former president who was chief justice of the constitutional court for eight years, said yesterday in a lecture that a second-year law student ought to be able to tell that the law that was put in front of Áder is “unequivocally unconstitutional.” As he ironically put it, “the students of Bibó College wrote a very poor brief.”

In the meantime it seems that the firm stand of the United States coupled with the massive demonstrations at home forced Viktor Orbán to reexamine his original game plan. 24.hu learned from reliable sources that a “serious debate” has taken place in the last couple of days in Fidesz circles. Apparently, at the moment they are still clinging to their initial response that they will not repeal or withdraw the law but instead will offer some kind of compromise. László Palkovics’s rather confused offer of an arrangement by which Central European University could offer degrees in a licensing agreement with Közép-Európai Egyetem is still on the table. But the university has already indicated that this arrangement is unacceptable. I should add that, two weeks into this drama, the Hungarian government still has not found time to get in touch with the administration of CEU directly.

I have the feeling that the Orbán government was not prepared for the resolute, self-confident stance of the university and its president, Michael Ignatieff. Hungary’s present leaders are accustomed to cowed subjects who barely dare to open their mouths. But here is a group of independent people who stand up for their rights. President Michael Ignatieff, after returning to Budapest from abroad, pointed out today that they have absolutely no idea where the government stands as far as its relationship to CEU is concerned. A week ago Zoltán Balog who is, after all, in charge of education, announced that the government’s goal is the removal of the university from Hungary, but now László Palkovics, Balog’s undersecretary, claims that the government wants CEU to stay. A week ago the minister accused CEU of fraud; now the undersecretary assures them that the university functioned legally. Ignatieff called upon the Hungarian government “to develop at last a uniform position.” He also sent a message to the government “to call us by our name. This is not a Soros University but Central European University.” As far as Palkovics’s “solution” is concerned, Ignatieff, “without wanting to be sarcastic or insulting,” considers “Undersecretary Palkovics’s sentences incomprehensible.”

Michael Ignatieff, president of Central European University

In the meantime, the government has been intimidating students and faculty at other Hungarian universities, telling them that they cannot participate in any demonstrations on behalf of CEU or do anything in general to support the CEU cause. Such threats were delivered at the University of Debrecen, the University of Kaposvár, and Corvinus University in Budapest. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission countered this government action in a press release in which it called attention to provisions in the Hungarian labor law that would protect both students and faculty from any recrimination as a result of their activities on behalf of CEU.

Today Romnet.hu, a website dealing with Roma affairs, reported that a CEU graduate, who I assume is Roma, was sacked from a state-owned company. He was told that the firm had received instructions from above that they don’t want to employ people who earned their degrees from CEU. The CEU graduate’s boss apparently expressed his regret and promised to help find another job for him through his personal contacts in the private sector.

Then there is Márton Gulyás, about whom I have written nothing so far. He is a young, rather brash activist who has been under the skin of the authorities for some time because of his “unorthodox” methods of protesting. He already had one scrape with the law when, screwdriver in hand, he arrived at the National Election Commission and removed the plate bearing its name. He received a one-year suspended sentence for this act. This time he was caught trying to throw a can of orange-colored paint against the wall of the building housing the president’s office. His attempt was failed, but he was arrested and kept in jail for three days. Thousands demonstrated for his release, and today he and another young man who was arrested in his own apartment after the demonstration was over had their day in court. Gulyás was sentenced to 300 hours of physical work at some public project. His companion received 200 hours. They will appeal the sentences.

And now, switching gears, let me return to Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi’s recall from Washington. Attila Ara-Kovács, currently foreign policy adviser of Demokratikus Koalíció, writes weekly posts on foreign affairs in his blog, “Diplomatic Note.” His latest post is “The fall of the ambassador.” Ara-Kovács has contacts in diplomatic circles who provide him with information that is usually accurate. According to him, the U.S. State Department had learned about the anti-CEU bill before it was made public. Curiously, this information allegedly reached Washington from Moscow. If this is true, says Ara-Kovács, the rumors about Russian involvement might have been accurate. A State Department official contacted Szemerkényi, who didn’t seem to know anything about the proposed bill. When the American diplomat summarized its contents, Szemerkényi apparently assured him that her government would never enact such a law. She reminded the bearer of the news that there are just too many conspiracy theories floating around, and the Orbán government’s opponents are apt to conjure up untrue stories. She promised, however, to provide more information once she gets the word from Budapest.

It wasn’t easy to get confirmation from the foreign ministry, and Szemerkényi had to use her contacts in Fidesz. Eventually she received the full text of the bill and ample advice on how to “sell” this piece of legislation to the U.S. government. Szemerkényi, instead of quietly following instructions, sent word back to Budapest that, in her opinion, the United States would never accept such a law. It is an illusion to think that just because Trump doesn’t particularly like George Soros his administration would take this lying down. She added that such a step might risk future good relations between the two countries. According to Ara-Kovács, a few hours after the Hungarian government received Szemerkényi’s message the decision was made to recall her. Viktor Orbán doesn’t joke around when someone dares to say “no” to him.

April 13, 2017

Situation report on the fight for Central European University

Yesterday Diana Ürge-Vorsatz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Policy at Central European University who as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, wrote a bitter letter on her Facebook page. She said that she and her husband left the United States in 2001 at considerable financial sacrifice in order for her to return to Hungary and join the faculty of CEU as an associate professor. It was a dream come true until April 4, 2017. As of that date, she finds herself part of an institution that “meddles in the internal affairs of Hungary and represents foreign interests.” What she finds most disappointing is that “colleagues, friends, and family don’t stand by her wholeheartedly.” They keep saying “the laws must be observed, and their glances indicate disapproval. Or, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t dare because I may be blacklisted.’”

Honest words, an honest description of what’s going on in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, but one must ask: Dear Diana, how is it possible that you haven’t noticed that something is very wrong with the party you dutifully voted for every four years? How is it that you as a proud Christian who gave birth to seven children and who, as you feel necessary to mention, “all attend parochial schools,” haven’t realized that this government’s alleged Christianity is hollow? Is it only now, when your own job is at stake, that you discover that something is wrong with the government you helped keep in power? Her statement ends with a whimper: “I am grateful for the support of those who dared to speak, dared to demonstrate, dared to share. Many of them are government-honoring [kormánytisztelő] Christian citizens, who for the first time said that this shouldn’t have been done.”

Fortunately most members of CEU’s administration, beginning with its president, Michael Ignatieff, are determined to fight and win. The contrast between the timid Hungarian academics and the international administration and faculty of CEU couldn’t be greater. Although President Ignatieff and Provost Liviu Matei have emphasized the support they have received from Hungarian colleagues and other Hungarian institutions of higher learning, the truth is that few have stood by CEU. Most of them have been quiet, but there was one “chancellor”—a newly appointed government watchdog over and above the university president and the senate—who outright welcomed the move of the government against CEU. The chancellor of the University of Debrecen pointed out that other Hungarian universities are at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting foreign students because of CEU’s ability to grant American degrees. The administration of Corvinus University was not exactly supportive either. President András Lánczi, the man who got the job as president of the university at the express wish of Viktor Orbán, also stressed the need for “a level legal playing field” for all Hungarian universities. It is true that 250 students and members of Corvinus University’s faculty published a supporting statement, but András Lánczi immediately fired off an e-mail reminding them of the university’s “ethical code,” which obliges members of the university community to maintain the good name of the university in their communications with the world.

Meanwhile the government is doing its best to mislead and intimidate. Two days ago an incredible number of policemen surrounded the parliament building on the occasion of the second demonstration in support of CEU. What was most disturbing was that in front of the row of policemen were apparent civilian strongmen who, as a video shows, provoked some members of the crowd. As it turned out, they were plainclothes policemen. While the uniformed police stood by motionless, these characters were belligerent. Almost as if they wanted to create a reason to arrest a few of the demonstrators. After a while they were recalled by a man in civilian clothes standing behind the police lines.

Last night two organizers of the demonstrations, a Hungarian and a foreigner, received unexpected visits from the police. Government papers want the public to believe that the demonstrators were almost exclusively foreigners. Magyar Hírlap­ reported that the government, as a result of the protest against the treatment of CEU, will be able to uncover the whole Soros network, which engages in such activities as “destabilization efforts by CEU graduates in states along the migration route, for example in Macedonia and Albania.”

The “parrot commando” keeps repeating the same false accusations against CEU, which they persist in calling Soros University. Until recently, László Palkovics, who is in charge of higher education, was given the task of explaining how eminently rational the Hungarian government’s position on CEU is. He steadfastly refused to admit that the amendments’ real purpose was to drive CEU out of the country. On the other hand, his boss, Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources, at last told the truth in a radio interview. “There is no need to beat around the bush. There is no need to hide. We ought to say straight out that we don’t want Central European University to function in its present form.” He added that if the United States and CEU want to continue in the present legal framework, “they have to invest.” That is, build a brand new campus in the United States.

The outcome envisaged by Balog is unlikely to materialize. President Michael Ignatieff is in the United States at present and, according to the latest news, has already conferred with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary of state for political affairs in the State Department, and Hoyt Brian Yee, deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. (Ignatieff was certainly more successful at the State Department than Hungary’s foreign minister, who visited Washington about two weeks ago and couldn’t meet with anyone at the Foggy Bottom.) He also talked with Fiona Hill, a member of the White House’s National Security Council who advises the president on European and Russian affairs. Next, Ignatieff is off to Berlin and, I trust, to Brussels as well. Angela Merkel’s spokesman already articulated the German government’s position on the matter.

Meeting with Thomas A. Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs

The European Parliament is also responding. Five of the eight political formations have condemned the Hungarian government’s attack on CEU. Even within the caucus of the European People’s Party (EPP), to which the 12-member Fidesz delegation belongs, a storm is brewing. It was the leader of the Fidesz group, József Szájer, who provoked the storm by writing an e-mail to the other members of the EPP caucus in which the Fidesz members contended that critics of the law have been “gravely mislead (sic) by the propaganda and private agenda of the American billionaire Soros” and are fighting with a “virtual reality.” They added that “as in the world of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there are the equals and there are some more equals (sic) than others.” This e-mail apparently prompted an angry reaction. EPP’s leader, Manfred Weber, tweeted that “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” Frank Engel, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg, was less polite. He replied in an e-mail: “Forget the crap. We know what is happening, and why. Why don’t you leave both the EPP and the EU on your own terms? … You’re practically and factually out anyway. So go. Please go.”

Time and again the European People’s Party caucus has saved Viktor Orbán’s skin in Brussels. It has been reluctant to expel its Fidesz members, who really don’t belong in this group. The Fidesz delegation would feel much more at home in the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists of Europe, joining their Polish and euroskeptic British friends. But the EPP doesn’t want to lose 12 members from its caucus. Although it is the largest in the European Parliament, its lead is not overwhelming. Still, even without Fidesz it would remain the largest caucus, with 205 members. The Socialists and Democrats have 189 members. To shield a dictatorial regime for the sake of a few votes is too high a price to pay.

April 6, 2017

Wakeup call: The PISA results reveal deep problems

The outcry over the PISA results is not subsiding. On the contrary. As more details surface, the magnitude of the problem is dawning on commentators. If almost 30% of Hungarian students at the age of 15 are functionally illiterate, it is difficult to imagine how the rosy future of the Orbán propaganda can ever be achieved.

The chief villain, of course, is silent. HVG asked the prime minister’s office for a response but was told to get in touch with Zoltán Balog’s ministry of human resources. Balog seemed to be in hiding. His undersecretary, László Palkovics, complained that this heartless OECD measures the performance of countries without taking into consideration local conditions, like his great efforts at a second wave of “reforms.” As Árpád W. Tóta, the witty political commentator, said, this problem can easily be remedied. Hungary should turn its back on the OECD just as it did today on the Open Government Partnership because it didn’t like the organization’s report on systemic corruption in Hungary over the last six years. Officials try to say as little as possible, but it seems that the party line is to whitewash the system they introduced and to blame the one-size-fits-all approach of PISA. Hungarian students have to take the same test as Japanese and German students, without any regard for the “Hungarian soul” and idiosyncratic “Hungarian thinking.” At least Viktor Orbán believes that Hungarian thinking is unique.

The consensus that has emerged in the last two days is that the cause of this drastic drop in performance is the reorganization of the educational system. The government set out to introduce a uniform system where all teachers teach the same material and thus all children end up with the same body of knowledge. Prior to the reform teachers could choose from a long list of textbooks. After the reform the choice was restricted to only two textbooks for each subject. If there had not been widespread protests, the government would have opted for only one. The old, favored textbooks were withdrawn and in record speed new texts appeared. In addition, the government decided that children need to work more and to acquire more factual knowledge. Even first-graders are required to stay in school until 4:00 p.m. Teachers, although they received raises, have to teach more classes and are forbidden to leave the building before 4:00 p.m. whether they have teaching duties or not. The result: overworked teachers, overworked students, and underperformance.

Some commentators are certain that the poor results are the consequence of too much teaching. A fair number of the many hours spent in school are frittered away on non-essentials. To appease the churches the government introduced religious instruction (or, alternatively, ethics classes). At least one hour a day is spent in physical education, which because of a lack of facilities often takes place in the corridors or consists of running up and down staircases. Since one of the undersecretaries in Balog’s ministry is a conductor and an expert on sacred music, even the crazy idea of daily singing came up at one point. Zoltán Balog was most enthusiastic. Wouldn’t it be splendid if these good Hungarian children would learn as many folk songs as possible? I don’t know what happened to this brilliant idea, but I hope it was dropped. Meanwhile, schools either don’t have any computers or, if they do, they are ancient and pretty useless. So it’s no wonder that students had difficulty answering the PISA test questions digitally.

Now let’s take a look at some of the details, which give us a fuller picture of the dreadful state of Hungarian education. In three years the number of students who haven’t reached even minimal reading competence has grown dramatically. These are the people whom we call functional illiterates. It is hard to believe, but 27.5% of 15-year-olds can’t figure out the meaning of quite simple texts. Six years ago only 17% of Hungarian students fell into this category. Hungary’s functional illiteracy rate is double that of Poland’s. That makes Hungary one of the poorest performers in the OECD countries, along with Mexico, Turkey, Greece, and Chile. Unfortunately, the situation is no better in the sciences, where 26% of the students performed under the minimum standards. Three years ago this was 18%. The situation is about the same in math as well. In brief, 18% of all Hungarian fifteen-year-olds underperformed not just in one subject but in all three.

You will write one hundred times: “Next time I will cram better for the PISA test” / Népszava , Gábor Pápai

According to Péter Radó, the foremost authority on education in Hungary today, if everything remains the same “Hungarian public education will produce 25,000 new functional illiterates yearly, in addition to about the same number who are deficient in math and science skills.” If one concentrates only on males, every third 15-year-old boy is functionally illiterate (31.9%).

Compare the 18% of Hungarian underperformers in all three areas with the Polish results, where only 8.3% fall into this category. Poland’s well thought-out educational reform has produced spectacular results. Long discussions among teachers, educational experts, students, and parents preceded the introduction of the Polish reform plan. In Hungary government officials talked to no one who would object to their retrograde plan and discussed it with only a small group of people with no expertise in education.

Let me add that the European Union as a whole is not doing as well as one would expect in the field of education, especially since it has a plan according to which by 2020 the proportion of students who perform under the minimum requirements must be reduced to 15%. As you can see on the following graph, the European Union’s results leave a great deal to be desired. It is unlikely that by 2020 it will achieve the desired result, especially if Hungary keeps adding to the already dismal figures.

Proportion of underachievers in Europe and Hungary in all three subjects

Among his many sins in the field of education Viktor Orbán set out to reduce the number of university graduates in Hungary. During the Kádár period only about 10% of the population had a higher degree. After 1990 successive Hungarian governments opened the doors of universities just like in other developed countries. As a result, enrollment soared, at least until Viktor Orbán decided that Hungary didn’t need so many university graduates. By exacting high tuition fees and decreasing the number of free places he managed to substantially reduce the number of students enrolled in Hungary’s colleges and universities.

Moreover, Orbán decided that among the high school population were some whose presence until the age of 18 was undesirable. The government therefore decreed that education was compulsory only to the age of 16. As a result, children of very poor families drop out of school as soon as possible in order to join the public workforce and help the family economically.  In the last couple of years Orbán also set out to decrease the number of academic high schools (gymnasiums) and to favor trade schools.

These moves, not without reason, raise the suspicion that Viktor Orbán wants to lower the educational attainment of Hungarians. The less educated can be more easily influenced and led. As Tóta said in his opinion piece today, Orbán managed to create a school system for sheep.

And he will undoubtedly continue along the same path unless someone stops him. For example, if the results of these tests rekindle teacher dissatisfaction. Lately, there have been signs that high school students, being perhaps foolishly brave, are standing up and even arguing with Zoltán Balog on matters of education. After all, their futures–and the future of the country–are at stake.

December 7, 2016

Learning? Secondary to being “a good Christian and a good Hungarian”

Before I begin today’s topic, János Lázár’s most unfortunate remarks about the goal of Hungarian education–to bring up good Christians and good Hungarians, let me return to the Habsburgs.

The Orbán government’s fascination with the House of Habsburg is not a new phenomenon, but in the last few years it has become more pronounced. Moreover, relations  between certain members of the Habsburg family and the Orbán government are excellent.

mezotur2

Let’s start with Otto von Habsburg or, as he was called in Hungary, Dr. Habsburg Ottó, whose archives will be deposited in the Royal Castle in Budapest. Although he was buried in Vienna with the rest of the Habsburgs, his heart was sent to Pannonhalma. His second son Georg (Habsburg György) and his family live in Hungary. Until 2012 he was president of the Hungarian Red Cross and he currently serves as one of the “traveling ambassadors,” promoting Hungary’s bid for the 2024 Olympic Games. He and his wife have three children, and the second girl was named Ildikó. How much more Hungarian can you get?

Great was the surprise when in July 2015 the Hungarian government named Eduard von Habsburg, an Austrian TV producer and scriptwriter, Hungarian ambassador to the Vatican. Eduard didn’t know any Hungarian at the time, but “he has been studying the Hungarian language intensively for the last year,” Hungary Today reported. His father Michael (Mihály) was born in Hungary, so Eduard is a bona fide Hungarian citizen.

The latest news on the Habsburg front is that the Hungarian government commissioned a bust of the last Hungarian king, Charles/Károly IV, who, since his beatification by the Catholic Church in 2004, has been known as Blessed Charles of Austria. As you can see from the photo, Zsolt Semjén thinks very highly of Charles both as a king and as a perhaps to-be saint.

karoly-kiraly

The above was just a footnote to yesterday’s post. My main topic today is a speech János Lázár gave at the opening of the Mezőtúr Reformed College’s refurbished “Old Library.” Perhaps in his eagerness to please his hosts, he declared that “the government believes that the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians.” He added that “everything beyond this is debatable and questionable” since we don’t know whether the acquired knowledge will stand the test of time in the next centuries.

The reaction of liberal commentators and leaders of the teachers’ unions was undisguised outrage. One of the bloggers of gepnarancs.hu pointed out that he always suspected that “a hidden curriculum existed” and now, thanks to the overly talkative Lázár, we have learned the truth. After all, ever since 2013 the number of parochial schools has multiplied and an incredible amount of public money has ended up in the hands of the favored churches, the Catholic and the Hungarian Reformed. But now it is no longer a secret. The Orbán government wants to entrust the churches with the education of future generations of Hungarian children.

Kolozsvári Szalonna, as usual, was even more outspoken. The blogger considers Lázár’s words a calamity. “I can’t imagine a more horrible thing than for a relatively young minister in the twenty-first century to say such immensely stupid and tragically frightening things. I get really scared when a sickly dictatorship and religion cling together trying to suffocate a whole country.” The Orbán government, in his opinion, fears nothing more than independent thinkers. Until now they have stolen everything material, now “they want to divide among themselves the education of our children and our rights to be believers or not.” The author is convinced that the “marriage of state and church results in defenselessness, poverty, ignorance, later dissatisfaction, blood, and tears.” His conclusion is that if the Hungarian people allow this nuptial “we will write ourselves out of Europe and the twenty-first century as well.”

Less emotional but still hard hitting was the reaction of the two teachers’ unions. The Pedagógusok Szakszervezete (PSZ) expressed its hope that since it was János Lázár and not Zoltán Balog, the minister responsible for education, who spoke, this unacceptable statement is merely Lázár’s personal opinion because no government can force its worldview on the whole nation. “It cannot be more than a private opinion because—as is clear from all the signed and declared international treaties—the state must honor the parents’ religious and ideological convictions.” The curriculum must be free of any ideological or religious bias. PSZ expects Zoltán Balog to clarify the government’s position on the matter.

László Mendrey, head of the Pedagógusok Demokratikus Szakszervezete (PDSZ), while emphasizing that no one should question the right of the churches to maintain schools, added that “they cannot attain supremacy.” In his opinion, Lázár’s ideas are unconstitutional and in conflict with the law on public education. “Lázár doesn’t realize who the most important persons are in education. We will help him: the children … For them, the most important consideration is not to be good Christians and good patriots. Rather, the goal is to acquire knowledge that will meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.”

I’m certain that this issue will not go away quickly. I wouldn’t expect any reassurance from Zoltán Balog who is, after all, a Protestant minister. He is also woefully ignorant of what education is all about, and his past interactions with children have shown him to be incapable of any meaningful exchange with young people. Moreover, what can one expect from a man in charge of education who announced the other day that he doesn’t believe in the notion of functional illiteracy because “if someone can read he also understands the text.”

I share the concerns expressed above by teachers and political commentators because I remember only too well the days when, because of the intertwining of state and church before 1948, education was entrusted mostly to the Catholic Church. More than half of the elementary schools were Catholic parochial schools while “an overwhelming majority” of gymnasiums and teachers’ colleges were also in the hands of the Catholic Church. Creating a secular school system was long overdue by 1948. It is another matter how the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi handled the nationalization of parochial schools. Yet I would find it unacceptable to return to the pre-1948 days in the twenty-first century.

November 28, 2016